Stargazing in the Badlands

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There's a magical appeal to summer nights, when the warmth of the season embraces us and the skies above reveal their celestial wonders in all their glory. Amidst the canvas of clear, expansive heavens, stargazing becomes an experience beyond compare. And for those fortunate enough to find themselves in the landscapes of South Dakota, specifically at the Badlands National Park near Wall, the marvels of the night sky take on an even more remarkable hue. With its pristine Dark Skies, this setting of natural beauty offers an unparalleled opportunity to delve into the cosmos, inviting all who venture there to cast their gaze upward and witness the enchanting dance of stars, planets, and galaxies like never before.

Exploring the park during the nighttime offers visitors an opportunity to view countless cosmic wonders in the expansive night sky. Badlands National Park, nestled in a relatively secluded location, boasts minimal light pollution. Light pollution refers to the excess artificial illumination such as streetlights, illuminated signs, sports arenas, and other nocturnal light sources that diminishes the natural brilliance of the night sky. This nuisance not only disrupts nocturnal ecosystems but also obstructs the visibility of stars, making stargazing a challenging endeavor.

Thanks to its remote location, Badlands National Park remains untouched by the glaring effects of urban light pollution, ensuring the night skies here are exceptionally crisp and clear. As daylight gives way to the enchanting darkness, visitors are treated to a celestial showcase featuring some of the most renowned elements of the night sky: constellations, the moon, satellites, and passing aircraft. However, what truly sets Badlands apart is its profound darkness, allowing visitors the privilege of witnessing even more astronomical marvels, from the dazzling presence of planets and the eerie glow of the Milky Way to the intricate beauty of star clusters, nebulae, and even fleeting visits by the International Space Station and shooting stars. On rare occasions, the park's unique darkness unveils the captivating dance of the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, adding an extra touch of magic to the already breathtaking panorama.

What to look for in the night sky:

o    The Moon: You probably already know the moon, but where did it come from? Scientists theorize that around 4.45 billion years ago, a small planet may have collided with Earth. When it did, bits of the Earth and the colliding planet were thrown into space. Over time, this material stuck together to form the moon!

o    Planets: Do you know the planets of our solar system? In order from the closest to the sun to the most distant, they are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. While the planets we see at the Badlands vary year to year, in the past, visitors have seen Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. Some have been lucky enough to see these planets through the 11-inch Celestron telescopes available at our Night Sky Viewings!

o    Shooting stars/meteors: Believe it or not, a shooting star has nothing to do with an actual star! A “shooting star” is when space material falls into the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up. Shooting stars are also known as meteors, and if they hit the Earth’s surface, they are known as meteorites.

o    The Milky Way: The Milky Way, which we see as a cloudy band of light and stars in the night sky, is our home galaxy. A galaxy is a collection of stars, gas, and dust that are all held together by gravity. Every star that we see in the night sky is a part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Did you know that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on Earth?

o    The International Space Station: The International Space Station (or ISS) is a large spacecraft that orbits Earth and is home to the astronauts who live and work in space. The ISS was built and is used by many different nations. These nations’ astronauts have the opportunity to research space science. The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and can be seen regularly in the night sky.

Every evening throughout the spring, summer, and fall seasons, Badlands National Park extends a warm invitation to experience their Night Sky Viewings, dedicated to the captivating world above. Park rangers and devoted volunteers take center stage during these events, employing potent laser pointers to unveil and elaborate upon the diverse tapestry of constellations, planets, and celestial entities that grace the nocturnal expanse. These viewings also present an opportunity for attendees to engage with the park's impressive 11-inch Celestron telescopes under the guidance of knowledgeable rangers. Young explorers can enhance their experience by obtaining a Night Explorer Junior Ranger Booklet from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during the day and subsequently completing their activity booklet to earn the esteemed Night Explorer Junior Ranger Badge during this engaging program.

Nearby, just six miles east of Wall and north of Badlands National Park is the Badlands Observatory. The tiny town of Quinn offers a great dark nighttime sky for the NASA research contributions and independent discoveries made by this science-based privately owned and operated facility that is an educational affiliate of the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium. 

Stargazing doesn’t happen only at night. Did you know that our sun is a star of average mass as compared to other stars in the Universe? And that our sun goes through an eleven-year cycle of minimum and maximum periods of activity, which affects sightings of the Aurora Borealis? Through the safe specially equipped telescopes at Badlands Observatory you can view solar prominences and sunspots during a daytime tour. Meet astronomer Roy Dyvig, who will share some experiences gained through his lifetime of passion for astronomy, can give you insights into optical science, the art of telescope-making and the history and accomplishments of Badlands Observatory, established in 2000. Photographer Teresa Hofer will share techniques for capturing breathtaking scenery and wildlife as well as astrophotography. 

At night, you will view stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies and the moon through a variety of powerful telescopes on the 2,500 square foot Observing Deck. Learn the astronomy behind each object as well as where it is located in the night sky. What is that star? Well, that’s not just a star.. it’s a distant solar system!

Astronomical events of special interest, such as meteor showers, eclipses, occultations and supernovae are all showcased at Badlands Observatory. Using the largest publicly accessible telescope in South Dakota, live stacking of deep objects is projected onto a 75” television screen in the Observatory’s lobby. Visitors are educated on the differences between images acquired through this process versus what is seen in visual astronomy. 

The progression of night sky objects changes with the seasons, which makes for unique viewing opportunities all year round. The breathtaking Orion Nebula is a winter object. Bundle up for views through the telescopes on the Observing Deck and take a complementary hot-chocolate break just a few steps away, inside the warm, friendly building.  

There are limited seats available for the nightly shows at Badlands Observatory. Visit their website at to make a reservation or call 605-381-1521 for more information. 

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